Francis Wolfe admits that he’s a little too familiar with cancer.
The retired firefighter in his sixties lost three grandparents to the disease, he has witnessed his father, brother and son survive — and recently he has received treatment himself for bladder cancer.
Yet despite these encounters and the complications that come with them, Wolfe has remained positive, choosing to ride his bike for a future where people won’t have to share his experience.
“I’d just like to make a difference and I hope what we do does make a difference,” he said. “Everybody says it, but it’s true, the sooner we can find a cure for cancer, the better.”
Wolfe has been a participant in the annual Ride to Conquer Cancer event every year for the past ten years. In that time he has been a part of a team that has raised more than $200,000 for cancer research.
It’s been a long journey for Wolfe, who found himself in Prince Rupert after moving to the city from Nova Scotia in 1971. Two of Wolfe’s childhood friends have moved to the West Coast, and found success working in the fishing industry and at the pulp mill. Given sparse opportunities for work in Nova Scotia at the time, Wolfe decided to take a chance on a change of scenery and see what Prince Rupert had to offer.
“The first thing I remember noticing when I first arrived was all the rain,” Wolfe said with a chuckle.
Like many who moved to Prince Rupert with a short-term plan, Wolfe began to put down roots. He met his wife Karen at a mutual friend’s party. He found a good job at the pulp mill before transitioning to being a firefighter. Before he knew it, Wolfe had become accustomed to the laid back, damp life in the northwest and didn’t want to live anywhere else.
“You think, ‘I’ll stay here for a few more years’ and then I got married, and 40-something years later I’ve got four children and lots of grandchildren and a great-grandchild,” he said. “This is home.”
Wolfe first found out about his own cancer in 2007 when driving to Terrace for a dentist appointment. He said he felt the sudden urge to use the bathroom and stopped at one of the rest stops along the Skeena Highway. He said he saw blood in his urine. He called his doctor to talk about what happened and they sent him to Vancouver where they did a scope and found two tumours in his bladder.
“When my doctor first told me, it was like I was hearing something way off in the distance,” he said. “The hardest thing for me to do was call my wife.”
Wolfe’s doctor told him that since they discovered the cancer early, it would be treatable and he had a good chance of sending it into remission. His initial surgery was a success, but the cancer has returned five times since. As a result, Wolfe’s most recent treatments have included chemotherapy. He said while it’s not ideal, his situation could be a lot worse if he had not taken the first step to see his doctor.
“I guess I was lucky in a way because I noticed what was going on early, that’s the big thing,” he said. “When you know something’s wrong, go see somebody.”
Wolfe first heard about the Ride to Conquer Cancer when he saw an organizer talking about it on a TV program. It had been a while since he rode a bike, but thought it would be a good to participate in. He signed up along with Gordie Simons, another cancer survivor in Prince Rupert.
The first ride took place in 2009 and went from Surrey to Washington State University. Even though the event was relatively small, Wolfe said he remembers the camaraderie of being surrounded by other people who had gone through a similar experience.
“You pull up to people and chat and share stories,” he said. “It was great meeting lots of people in the same situation.”
Wolfe said the first ride was successful even though it was challenging, saying that he “walked like a cowboy” for a few days afterwards. But after participating once, he knew it was something he would continue to do, and he and Simons recruited other riders from Prince Rupert to participate, growing the team over the past 10 years.
In this year’s ride, Wolfe was recognized for his 10 years of riding with a platinum helmet in addition to an ambassador’s helmet for his fundraising and organization efforts — and a cancer survivor flag. He said he doesn’t need the recognition, but it’s nice to receive congratulations and pats on the back from other riders along the route.
When asked how long he’ll continue to ride, Wolfe said he doesn’t see himself stopping any time soon. The ride, the people and the journey have all become an important part of his journey and fighting cancer.
“Even if I can’t ride anymore, I’ll probably volunteer in some capacity,” he said.